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David Boring: Loose Threads and Five Card Nancy

By Isaac Cates
The following is a transcript of Dr. Cates' presentation which appeared as part of a panel discussion that took place on February 20, 2002 atthe Will Eisner Symposium at the University of Florida. The panel included Dan Clowes, Terry Zwigoff, and Isaac Cates and was moderated by Don Ault. The remainder of the panel can be found here.

Throughout, we have made an effort to maintain the sense of immediacy of the event while upholding the integrity of the text. Accordingly, "stage directions" are included in gray and ellipses are employed when a speaker trails off or is interrupted. Figures and image references were added after the fact and/or reconstructed based on Dr. Cates' original slides.

Don Ault: So the next thing that’s going to happen is for Isaac Cates from Yale to be brave enough to talk about Dan Clowes’ work with Dan Clowes sitting right here.

Isaac Cates: Thanks for turning out and thanks, Don, for putting me in this awkward position. And, actually, it sort of forces me to be really serious about what I’ve written here.

I’m just going to proceed as if you guys are all really familiar with Dan Clowes’s work—at least some. This is a little paper called “David Boring: Loose Threads and Five Card Nancy,” about whom more later.

Although his comic Eightball has contained stories later collected into three graphic novels, Dan Clowes revealed in a recent Comics Journal interview that neither Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron nor Ghost World was constructed in the way we’d imagine a novel would be. After the completion of Velvet Glove, Clowes “actually thought that a couple of issues down the road [he] was going to start [a] really long story, one that [he] was going to plan out in advance” —unlike the Velvet Glove story. Instead, the teenage girls in a six-page story in the next issue began to emerge as characters, to insinuate themselves into future issues of Eightball, even though “at that time [Clowes] did not think of [Ghost World] as a continuing story” (TCJ 53). Clowes’s recent David Boring was originally conceived in a three-part form, but because each of the three chapters was serialized in Eightball, Clowes had considerable time to revise and adjust the story even after its first two parts were in print. Because his work is serialized in this way, Clowes can use the later chapters of a serialized story to revise our readerly understanding of events or images in earlier chapters. In fact, all of Clowes’s longer work — even the self-contained Eightball #22, currently available from Fantagraphics — seems highly aware of this revising effect of serialization. At his best, as in Ghost World or David Boring, Clowes makes use of the reader’s capacity to project a story beyond its pages, to endow moments with significance retroactively, and to re-imagine his narratives as he re-imagines them.

Clowes has pointed out in several interviews that, in collecting the “Ghost World” strips for publication as a graphic novel, he returned to the original Eightball art and redrew the characters’ faces to match more closely the appearance they’d taken on by chapter eight, four years after the first stories were published (TCJ 56). I don’t have any of the early “Ghost World” art at hand back in New Haven, but you can see some of the same process by comparing two panels from Like a Velvet Glove which were revised for novelization. [Figure 1] In both cases, the panels from Eightball #2 have been revised to clean up overworked shading, and in the second, the protagonist Clay’s, look of alarm is also softened to something more like worry than terror (he’s been completely redrawn there; you can even tell from the shirt that he’s been redrawn). This sort of direct physical revision must be a strong temptation for a cartoonist as careful with details as Clowes, and one whose skill has developed as visibly since the early issues of Lloyd Llewellyn; however, direct revision is only possible when the stories are republished, and then it is frequently, in Clowes’s words, “pure torture” (TCJ 56). (You can take that overhead away so it doesn’t embarrass him anymore). Until they can be revised, the early chapters of serialized stories are fixed historically at the point of their publication; Clowes, therefore does a more meaningful and subtle sort of revision by reconsidering the value of images or episodes that have already taken place. In the case of both Like a Velvet Glove and Ghost World, this re-evaluation is done in the writing process, primarily from notes (TCJ 63) (he says he has loved to look back at the old issues), and with a certain fluidity, so that a story planned for five installments might last instead for eight. Details which were originally written or drawn for one purpose might come to hold a different or greater meaning as they were taken into new chapters of the developing story. (And, here, you can see slide two) [Figure 2] I suspect, for example, that even Clowes might not have known that Laura, the dog with no orifices (which appears for the first time in chapter four—[indicating slide] up at the top), would eventually turn out to have an arcane map tattooed on its back (and I say “it” because Laura is referred to as a “he” a couple times, but I suppose without orifices—you can’t tell; [indicating slide] that’s chapter seven). [laughter] It’s not until the last page of chapter six that Clay received instructions to “Shave the Dog.”

Similarly, the elements that compose the central conflict or plot in Ghost World—the thing we think of as driving the novel—appear early in the story, but don’t gain their full value for the plot until the sixth of Ghost World’s eight chapters. (Give me the next slide—you’ll have to adjust this one, Mike, as we go through) [Figure 3] Although Enid mentions the possibility in Chapter Three (24.5) that she “might go to Strathmore next year” during her encounter with “Johnny Apeshit," her college plans don’t surface again until Chapter Six (52.5), and they don’t become a source of conflict with Becky until her SAT-vocabulary words start to enter their conversations—that’s in Chapter Seven (54.9, 57.2-4). Similarly, ([to Mike] Next slide) although Josh appears as a character for the first time when he and Enid venture into Adam’s II in Chapter ... Three? What is that? Four? (33.8) [Figure 4], the question of who will sleep with Josh is basically still a joke in Chapter Six (50.1-2), and only becomes serious in Chapter Seven, when the story is nearly complete (60-61). Both of these major questions, along with the general tension between the girls as they grow out of their friendship, are resolved in the story’s final chapter, which at eighteen pages is three times the length of most of the preceding installments: the additional space is necessary for Clowes to create an ending that will tie together the plot threads he has teased out of his earlier chapters and developed in the previous two. Bob Skeetes, John Ellis, Enid’s ex-stepmother Carol, and the “Norman” sidewalk square all return in the final chapter to draw these many loose threads together. In a sense, the last two or three chapters of Ghost World are a reading of the first five, much in the way that the Ghost World film—I’d guess—is a reading rather than a direct translation of the comic.

When a comics story appears on its own, any small detail of character or environment not directly related to the plot is of equal value: all these details help to build the world which the reader will mentally animate, to suggest a space outside the panels. This creation of a “perfectly imagined” world is a virtue of good comics that Clowes has said, for example, that he admires in the work of Kim Deitch (TCJ, 67). However, when a single story is part of a larger serial, some of these background details will turn out to prove more meaningful, either as they remind the reader of past events, or as they fall into a pattern only perceived as reading progresses. Like other connoisseurs of serialized fiction — and here I include television dramas or sequelized movies as the most ready examples from our contemporary culture, although of course both the novel and film have both in the past been commonly serialized. As connoisseurs of this kind of fiction, comics subscribers are familiar with the process of projecting hopes or expectations for a story’s next installment into the comic’s unknown future, revising the meaning or value of a plot point when it is revisited later. The serialization of individual chapters is often left out of our critical conversations about the graphic novel, although most of the graphic novels that make up the current literary movement in comics are and have been serialized, if only for financial reasons. (I guess Will Eisner’s works are the most visible exception to this rule). Certainly it must make a difference in our understanding of Ben Katchor’s Jew of New York or Jason Lutes’s Jar of Fools to know that both of these works appeared originally one page at a time, in newspapers; the internal coherence of the page must be much stronger, compositionally and narratively, in work published in this way. For similar reasons, we (as critics) need a vocabulary, I think, for describing the way in which serialized installments can comment on each other, particularly as later episodes or chapters attribute new meaning to story elements which had previously seemed insignificant to the reader (and maybe even to the writer).

Clowes’s early metaphors for this process of meaning-reevaluation seem to have derived mainly from dream-analysis. So the weird stuff you see in Velvet Glove gains meaning because Clay’s attention is riveted to it, and (because we are forced to watch with him) we start to assign symbolic meaning to some of these details just as we would seeing something strange in a dream. A similar but more self-conscious moment occurs early in David Boring (this is the next slide) when David describes the garbage in the vacant lot his windows open onto (4.2-3). [Figure 5] He mentions “tires, [a] sofa, [and a] mattress,” but although these objects seem to David “to have been left for their symbolic value,” he doesn’t mention the small boat which is clearly the focus of the next panel, and it’s one of only two of the objects that are outside of the Zipatone—that and a mattress. We next see a boat like this in David Boring being guided by a delusional Testor Truehand, who is in one of the inset panels borrowed from David’s father’s comic, the Yellow Streak Annual (35.4), which David is reading here (it’s not a real comic: it’s invented for the novel) [Figure 6] Testor, like David, is moving toward danger (David will be shot on the next page, or shot at—well, shot), and we might infer from this inset that David is also being manipulated by a “Hag,” although that doesn’t exactly turn out to be true.

There’s a moment in the Comics Journal interview where Dan Clowes is asked about the possibly Freudian shape of that tower, and he defers briefly to the interviewer before confirming the interviewer’s suspicion that he [the interviewer] was actually just projecting TCJ,65.) [laughter] Small boats like this one become much important — and pragmatically, beyond any “symbolic value” they might also have — in the second chapter, when they are the characters’ only way to leave the island called Hulligan’s Wharf where they’re staying. Since the novel is so frequently figured as an account of David’s sexual history, we might actually consider the boat and the mattress that we saw back in the first pages of chapter one [Figure 5] to be parallel vessels or small craft of various kinds on which David’s story moves forward.

However, assigning a specific and definite meaning to these objects seems to run against the grain of David Boring; it would privilege the interpretation over the evidence itself. And although the metaphors of psychoanalysis are still in play for Clowes, David Boring posits a rather different set of metaphors, a different vocabulary, for describing the way meaning can shift or change in serialized fiction. The first of these metaphors (and I’ll come back to the second one), and the most prominent, is simply that of reading, and in particular the reading of juxtaposed images, [to Mike] (you can throw that next one up) that feat or feature that makes comics-reading different from other sorts of literary experience. Twice, David himself is presented with a set of disconnected images or panels, and attempts to assemble meaning from them. [Figure 7] In the deserted apartment of his ex-girlfriend Wanda Kraml, David finds a set of paper shreds with small “rebus” images on them (34.5-8), and after he escapes from Hulligan’s Wharf he’s still trying to decode them, shuffling them into new combinations (77.5-6). Professor Karkes, who is his rival for Wanda’s affection, describes the rebus to David in Chapter Three: “This is me, of course: Car-Keys ... It was just a game. There are a number of plausible interpretations, depending on the sequence of the symbols... She was, for instance, my ‘star pupil’ and my ‘movie star’” (82.1-3). Of course, to recognize Karkes in the rebus back in Chapter One, we’d have to know how to pronounce K-A-R-K-E-S; and although it’s hinted that Wanda might be taking his class, their romance is not revealed until Chapter Three. (and this is the next slide) [Figure 8]

By then, David is also similarly trying to interpret the remaining scraps of his father’s Yellow Streak comic which has been torn up in Chapter Two (95), and David says that he’s “trying to forge a narrative sequence ... that will suggest, and possibly even engender, a satisfying resolution to my troubles” (98. 6) by reading these panels. (He comes back to them again later. Will you show the next one, Mike, please? He’s shuffling them down here in this lower left-hand panel [indicating slide], and Dot, his roommate, says “There’s nothing there, David.” I’m not so sure.) When David and Dot return to Hulligan’s Wharf, in the graphic novel’s last pages, he discovers a final panel (a very final panel) (which is on the handout—I don’t know how much of the handout got around or if it didn’t at all? Aha. You’ll have to share, I only made, like, thirty of them. I didn’t realize there’d be so many people. [laughter] Anyway, I’ll describe it.) There’s – all it is is an explosion, and the word “Boom” and the words “the end.” His comment on this “resolution” is that his father “wasn’t much for endings, I guess...” (115.2-3). Given David’s peculiar awareness of his place as a character and narrator (he dreams, for instance, that he is being watched by a God who waits “for [him] to do something that will hold His interest” at 103.7, and I guess that makes a kind of pun on David’s last name) — and given that Clowes has claimed in one interview the character grew from him asking himself, “What kind of son would I like to have?” — it’s hard not to hear David commenting on his creator’s, or Clowes’s, method of concluding a plot by reading what has happened so far. Of course, as fictional characters, we would want a different sort of responsibility (before the fact) from our creators, be they writer, biological parents, God, or whatever. However, Clowes’s vision of the way we experience meaning in this world seems to be more like David’s, and the final page of David Boring, which I haven’t reproduced, offers a conclusion Clowes calls “happiness that [is] ultimately really depressing”: David acknowledges that the days from which he narrates the story, with Dot and his cousin Pamela at Hulligan’s Wharf, are a happy ending only as “a pocket of stillness between climax and oblivion” (116.5): that is, only because his narrative is framed with a beginning and an end is this point a happy conclusion.

As I implied, David’s interpretation of his father’s comic (conveniently preserved in whole or almost-whole panels so it can still be read) is analogous to our own experience in reading serialized fiction. It’s also analogous to the experience of reading comics within the single page, in that, as Scott McCloud repeatedly insists, the central feature of comics as a genre is the spatial juxtaposition of images which we then read happening sequentially in time. Even images that weren’t meant to be juxtaposed, like the scraps of the Yellow Streak Annual, can be read in conjunction, and this “interprative play” with an “infinite number of correct interpretations” (and that’s a phrase borrowed out of a short piece by Clowes called “Gynecology”) inspired a game that Scott McCloud calls Five-Card Nancy — in which each player holds a “hand” of cards that are disjointed panels from Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy newspaper strip, and then plays them down onto other played panels to form some kind of sequential strip or jokes. (It’s a surrealist thing) I imagine the result is frequently a sort of inspired nonsense or just nonsense, but the fact that unconnected images can be read as if they held an intentional meaning, that McCloud’s “closure” can occur even between unrelated panels, tells us something about the power of comics, and I think should tell us something about how to read David Boring as well.

In the book’s third chapter, David teams up with Professor Karkes to find Wanda Kraml, and abruptly the tone and pacing switch back from a kind of sexual confessional, to something more like film-noir, where the novel roughly began: David and Karkes together “gather clues” and hire a private detective; police investigating the earlier (and by now forgotten) murder of David’s friend Whitey are soon on the scene as well. And although the second chapter represents a sort of pastoral interlude, David Boring is framed as a detective story, with several mysteries offered to the reader to solve. Detective work is the second of the metaphors I suggested Clowes was now using for the re-assessment of meaning in serialized stories, and I suggest this not only because David Boring turns to detective work nor because the most recent issue of Eightball names a detective, Mr. Ames, as its putative “protagonist.” Actually reading, or perhaps, writing even these recent works is like doing detective work. David Boring in its first chapter offers us two mysteries which the reader must feel compelled to solve, and the solution of which is only delayed by the interlude of the second chapter: first, who kills Whitey, whose arrival seems to set the narrative in motion; second, who shoots David Boring himself. (And I guess, there’s another one, you know—Will the bullet find it’s mark?; Clowes admited in one interview that “it’s so unfair to make people wait eight months ... to see a bullet hit its target.” He’s sort of intentionally illuminating the cliff-hanger ending by giving you a dead-on image of the bullet flying out of the gun toward you.) ([to Mike] Can you give me the next slide?) We never learn who killed Whitey, though I think we’re meant to entertain--in chapter one anyway--the possibility that it was David himself or maybe his roommate Dot. [Figure 9] And although David’s would-be assassin is later revealed to be Professor Karkes, I think it’s equally likely at this stage that he’s shot by someone else, maybe Dot’s girlfriend Ginger, or the mystery assailant who attacked Whitey, or maybe – and let me give you a chance to absorb what’s going on here [indicates slide]. If you see, my hints, you know, early Dot says “Kill Whitey” for no particular reason other than to make a joke, and after David gets back from his interrogation with the police, he’s jumpy: “Jesus, Boring, why are you so jumpy?” (Can you guys see that all right? It looks really faded from up here. [to Mike] give me the next slide please.) Maybe David was shot at by this weird guy who appears four times in the chapter and who speaks to David just before he is shot. [Figure 10]

This fellow is identified in the “credits” at the end of Chapter Three as “Mr. Beard,” and he almost seems to be following David. (These are all images from chapter One) The shooter’s hair is – like the shooter who is seen in silhouette (I don’t have an image of that) – his hair is parted on the same side as Mr. Beard’s and it’s not the way Karkes is drawn in chapter One, although he also—to be fair—looks thinner than Mr. Beard so it’s really unclear who’s doing the shooting. Is this guy Mr. Beard a red herring or an option for Clowes himself if he hasn’t decided yet where to pin the crime? Did Mr. Beard kill Whitey? Is this David’s dad? Later on we find that David’s dad is definitely dead, but we don’t know that in Chapter One. I’ll defer all these answer to the rest of the panel, they’ll know better than I do.

There’s a certain pleasure, however, in spotting this one guy’s scattered background appearances, although I don’t think we’re meant to make anything more from it than just the trivial pleasure of spotting him. I think there’s something to be said about going back over a comic and – the way a detective goes back to a crime scene and pieces things together. In fact, it’s surprising how infrequently comics are devoted to detective stories, given that we can do this as readers, revisit previously visible scenes, glean new things about the details that were there that we had earlier thought were trivial.

I should note, in closing, (after I drink this water) that Clowes increasingly reveals an interest in the reading role of the critic, the critic’s search for meaning in texts and symbols, which is in some way somewhere between the roles of reader and detective or psychological analyst. However, literary critics seem to enter Clowes’s work chiefly as they misread, over-read, or ineptly read other writer’s texts. [Figure 11] Karkes, judging from his academic statements in Chapter One, is hardly a model professor (22.1-2, 25.2-4), and in the Comics Journal interview I have been referring to, Clowes talks about Nabokov’s Pale Fire as an influence on David Boring: “When I was reading Pale Fire,” he says,

I remember the thing that I really responded to was the idea that I had, as a kid, read comics that my brother had left lying around, and I had tried to take from them some unconscious message that wasn’t necessarily there. I thought that was such a great thing in Pale Fire how this unreliable critic who’s sort of mis-analyzing this whole epic poem that John Shade has written, is actually creating this whole new work of art that’s possibly even superior to this great poem itself. (TCJ 66)

And then we have this guy [indicates slide], without whom no critical discussion of Clowes can now be complete, from the new Eightball 22. This is Harry Nabors, Comic Book Critic. Harry does some of our work for us, interpreting Eightball 22, linking two panels that feature a noisy neighbor motif (in the upper right-hand corner of that page) offering the fact that Clowes “grew up mere blocks from the Leopold and Loeb crime scene,” which is also important in the comic. Here he is also, however, clearly being made fun of, as he offers a “28-page essay about the significance” and origin of his own name [laughter] (which is right there, [points at slide] thanks Mike), and as he asks “So what else can we say about this comic? Are critics really like horseflies? Is criticism an inevitable force of nature? Do you think the author likes me personally?” [laughter] Something seems to be missing from Harry’s account of Eightball 22, and it may have something to do with the fact that we must, as readers, assemble the comic’s twenty-nine individual “stories” to understand it as a whole; that as Mr. Ames suggests, (and this is on the handout if you got it) “the comics reading experience is intrinsically beyond the range of words. It’s an experience of shifting meanings, of questions--not really answers.”

We have to tie together certain loose threads to convict the comic’s villain, whose guilt is never explicitly shown. Thanks. [applause]

Don Ault: [to Cates] I must add I think you’ve done a pretty good job of incorporating yourself as a character in Dan Clowes’s comic.

Isaac Cates: I didn’t do that that was his [Clowes’s] comic –

Don Ault: No, well, that’s what I was hearing. I’m going to be bold enough to ask Dan if he has any response to this. [Clowes mouths the word “No!”] I’ve already been told that it’s unlikely [laughter] but in case there is, I’ll just ask.

Dan Clowes: Well, that's certainly something I think about a lot, about that, that quality of serialization. That’s the dilemma because I really like comic books; I really like pamphlets. I mean, I like the books as well but somehow they don’t have the thrill for me that that actual comic pamphlet does--that's something that has a connection to me from childhood so I’ve always tried to make it work on it’s own somehow. But those Velvet Glove stories didn’t really work, you know. People got lost about halfway through that story and they didn’t know where it was going. So with Ghost World, I very consciously tried to make each episode a separate story in and of itself. And with David Boring, as you pointed out, I tried to play with that sort of thing. I like the idea of sort of torturing the audience with that bullet heading towards his head for 8 months, that was fun. I got a sadistic glee out of it. [laughter] And in the most current issue I tried to somehow put it all together into a comic book, to somehow jam it all in there. But it is something that I’m constantly dealing with, and you’ve covered it well.

This panel continues with a full discussion here.

References

Clowes, Daniel. Interviewed in The Comics Journal 233 (May 2001) 53.

--- . Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, 3rd printing. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2000.

--- . Interviewed by The Onion A.V. Club (undated, c. 1999) <http://www.theavclub.com/avclub3306/avfeature3306.html>.

--- . Quoted in salon.com article by Carina Chocano. <http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2000/12/05/clowes/index2.html>.

--- . Eightball 22 (October 2001).

--- . Interview in indy magazine. <http://www.indymagazine.com/interviews/dclowes3.shtml>.

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